Criminal Justice

Obama Knocks 'Defund the Police' Activists for Valuing 'Feel Good' Sloganeering Over Practical Reforms

Efforts to push for substantial police reforms many people would support instead became a political battlefield.


President Barack Obama is the latest establishment Democrat warning that screaming "Defund the Police" is not necessarily a viable path to bring about actual police reforms, let alone win elections.

In an interview on the Snapchat show Good Luck America, Obama compared the slogan to a marketing tool, not a realistic effort to bring about change. Quotes via Politico:

"If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it's not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like 'defund the police.' But, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done," Obama said.

"The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?" he added. "And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you've got to be able to meet people where they are. And play a game of addition and not subtraction."

There were some modest successes in police reform over the summer, but they almost feel like they've happened despite the "defund the police" movement, and because they had the support of civil libertarians of all political persuasions. We've seen laws passed to ban "no-knock raids" in the wake of Breonna Taylor's shooting death by police in Louisville, Kentucky; we've seen new laws banning types of chokeholds, partly in response to anger over the death of George Floyd under the knee of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin; we've seen, after years of resistance, New York state pass a bill that subjects police misconduct and disciplinary files to public records laws.

However, hundreds of proposed police reform bills also went nowhere this year. Street protests can draw attention to outrageous police behavior, but state legislatures are where those outrages are addressed (or not). Countless Californians protested over the summer, but law enforcement unions still managed to kill a bill that would have created a system to decertify problem cops and prevent them from finding new police jobs in other cities.

So much of potential policing reform is transpartisan: Successes have come not from one single party having power but when individuals across the political spectrum agree. Many reforms of state civil asset forfeiture laws—which empower police to seize and keep money and property suspected of being tied to criminal activities, even when the owners haven't been charged or convicted—came from a combination of those who object to Fourth Amendment violations as well as those who noted that poor minorities and immigrants were often the targets of this tactic. That's reform people across the ideological spectrum can support.

The "defund the police" movement instead invited polarization and vagueness, and as we clearly saw this fall, got dragged not just into the culture war but into election campaigning, as President Donald Trump used the slogan to argue that police reforms were entirely a Democratic "anti-cop" crusade. Democrats ended up losing down the ballot in many states and races (even in California). Does this now taint as partisan future criminal justice reform efforts?

Those who have actually paid attention to years and years of police reform efforts know that this is not true. Not only have numerous Republicans supported efforts to reduce harsh police enforcement, but Democrats have also carried water for police unions. Don't believe me? Check out Arizona, where Democrats killed a bill in May to restrain civil asset forfeiture because they didn't want the police to lose the revenue.

Tying police reform to a particular party or ideological movement is ultimately bad for criminal justice, and Obama recognizes that. Unfortunately, the damage may have already been done. We'll see what, if anything, comes out of President-elect Joe Biden's administration and state legislatures next year.